The hangover: Sporting KC had been building to that MLS Cup run under Peter Vermes for more than half a decade. That is a long, slow build, one that saw a rebrand, a rebirth, and the rise of a soccer culture in a spot that longtime observers of the league thought would never lead the charge for the sport. That's quite a culmination, and quite an emotional impact. How they recover from that is a huge story.
Find me a sniper: Claudio Bieler's goals per 90 ratio (.43) was DP-ish, residing in roughly the same stratosphere as guys like Tim Cahill, Diego Valeri and Landon Donovan. But it wasn't elite for a center forward – notice the three DPs I compared him to all spent considerable time in midfield (all of it in Valeri's case) – and Bieler lost his starting spot by the tail end of the season. Dom Dwyer looks to have retained it heading into 2014, and while he's been good, he hasn't been productive. It looks like KC will play another year without a real go-to goalscorer.
Replacing the Puma: Jimmy Nielsen looked like an extra from the Walking Dead in last year's MLS Cup, shuffling along and barely able to move. He played through broken ribs and still led his team to a title, which tells you quite a bit about his leadership and presence in goal. Eric Kronberg, who's been with KC since the Arrowhead Stadium days, will finally get his chance to be the No. 1. He's got a lot to live up to.
Star Attraction: Graham Zusi
Zusi is entering his sixth year, and third as a bona fide MVP candidate. He is at the heart of everything Sporting do because he is absolutely relentless both on and off the ball.
That's the part of his game that gets the most dap, and it's justifiable. Both Vermes and USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann rave about Zusi's fitness, how he leads drills in camp, and sometimes outside of camp. The winger's rise to stardom started after an offseason filled, sunup to sundown, with running. He came in fitter than his competition, took over the starting spot, and dragged SKC to the playoffs.
On the field, you probably know all about his dead-ball delivery. He's usually among the league leaders in set piece assists, and if he wasn't nearly as precise last year, he's still a threat on every restart.
But I want to point out something that doesn't get nearly enough love, and that's his ability to create instant separation from defenders both with and without the ball (watch his last touch before the shot in the GIF above).
Zusi's not going to win many footraces longer than 10 yards, but over those 10 yards he's absolute murder. That's why so few of his crosses – from either the left or the right, and he'll show up on both sides of the 4-3-3 throughout the year – get blocked, and why even when the play he's attempting to make doesn't quite come off, the opposing defense has to scramble.
Probable Formation: 4-3-3
Major Acquisition: Sal Zizzo
Zizzo came in as an afterthought, but after a very, very strong preseason and an injury to C.J. Sapong he could end up as a starter in Week 1. And for the first time in his career, he seems to be in a situation where he could be used as an attacker rather than a converted fullback.
That's been the story for Zizzo since he burst upon the scene back in the 2007 U-20 World Cup, one of the stars of a team that included Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu (he was good then, I swear!). Zizzo provided width, blazing speed and 1-v-1 ability on the right of midfield, dragging defenders out of position and creating lanes for the central midfield.
Then he moved to Hannover in Germany, and they groomed him as a fullback. Then he played 10 games for Chivas USA, mainly as a fullback. And then he played three years in Portland ... mainly as a fullback.
He's 26 now, and might move to the backline for KC eventually. But it seems doubtful. Zizzo's direct play from the right flank has, in the preseason, made Sporting more dangerous in transition and – just as it did for Bradley and Adu seven years ago – dragged extra defenders away from the midfield.
- SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“Everyone knew here was a vacancy, and everyone knew that the team needed a new captain, but I honestly didn't think about it at all, in the offseason or even preseason. My approach was to be myself and stay true to myself and try and lead, but I wasn't worried about being named captain.”
Fantasy Pick: Aurélien Collin ($10.0m/ selected by 18.2 percent of teams) – The No. 1 defender and No. 1 overall player in MLS Fantasy last season, Collin should begin 2014 right where he left off. He racks up defensive bonus points like it's his job and with Zusi providing stellar service on set pieces he could very well match his goal production from 2013.
Players to watch: Eric Kronberg, Graham Zusi, Claudio Bieler
We've got Sporting ranked No. 1 in the first edition of the 2014 Power Rankings, and they've earned the benefit of the doubt despite losing Nielsen to retirement this offseason. Their roster, which really doesn't have any holes and features game deciders at every line, is a testament to formulating a plan, building with patience, and seeing it all through. Sporting didn't luck into an MLS Cup: They targeted it, and won it like they'd planned to.
So that means they're the favorites for the Supporters' Shield in 2014 after two years of coming oh-so-close. Even with Zusi and Matt Besler locks to miss significant time mid-summer in Brazil (and Benny Feilhaber a possibility), Vermes will have answers in his squad. There shouldn't be any precipitous, roster-wide dips in form.
They'll also be aided by the fact that the Western Conference continues to look tougher than the East this year, so the likes of LA, Portland, Seattle and RSL should end up cannibalizing each other down the stretch. It's too early to call Sporting's final month "soft," but with the expected West leaders trading kidney shots throughout October, there'll only be so many points to go around out there.
We'll know fairly early – probably by the end of March – whether this gang is able to play with a target on their backs. They've been the hunter for the past few years, but now they've earned the right to be the hunted.
How they handle it will determine if they're champions once again.